Tech & Work

Members share warning signs of an impending layoff

One of the best ways to avoid a layoff is to know when a downsizing may be headed your way. TechRepublic members offer these warning signs and events to watch out for.

Keeping your career on track, and staying employed, is a critical skill for IT professionals in today's economy. While there are those 'duh' (obvious) indications of a layoff to come—the company files bankruptcy or merges with the leading industry competitor, or the corporate leaders start leaving in droves—there are less noticeable signals you should be aware of so that you, and your career, don't get caught short.

We asked TechRepublic members to share the less obvious signals and their prospective of getting caught unaware in the layoff headlights. The feedback provided anecdotes that fellow IT professionals can learn from and tips on how to avoid becoming a layoff target.

Signs from the top
Members' feedback relating to corporate decision making that ignited a layoff included obvious as well as subtle signals—such as no more doughnuts during training sessions or no more free soda in the cafeteria. Many members believe that most employees aren't alert when it comes to company actions, so the big tip is not to bury your head in your cube or hide behind closed doors. Here are some warning signs to watch for:
  • Your boss's boss is not working very hard at all and isn't contributing to the business in a meaningful way. He or she probably knows, better than anyone, that things are designed for a shutdown.
  • The corporate reporting structure is cracking—your boss's boss has either too few or too many direct reports.
  • The company is supposedly looking to "expand" but now can't due to a management restructure.
  • Business plans are never met after years, and no one is being held accountable for the poor performance.
  • The size of the company noticeably declines in a short period, with global and regional offices shutting down every few months.
  • The reorganization effort is constant, but nothing meaningful changes.
  • There's an increase in niggling cost cutting—whittling away at benefits that don't cost much and have a high ROI for morale.
  • Tension increases among upper management.
  • A sense of paralysis plagues high-level managers. A buzz statement heard over and over is, "Things are pending."
  • A new corporate personnel evaluation system requires mandatory rating percentage of people in the grading structure.

Warning signs closer to home
Layoff signals are often much stronger when an economic storm nears internal business units—as managers become aware there will be layoffs if budget cuts aren't strong enough. It's within this realm—interacting with your manager—that many members reflected that they should have, or could have, seen the layoff coming if they had paid more attention. Here are some quick tips to be on the lookout for:
  • You're being slowly cut out of the team loop—you don't have to go to meetings anymore.
  • Coworkers are behaving differently—you're no longer the lead person to connect with on any given project.
  • Your boss moves you into a role he or she knows you won't be happy with.
  • Your bosses have avoided going to lunch with you, although you know your boss is able to take the time.
  • When you give a report at a staff meeting, no one comments and the group leader moves right along.

In some cases, the best warnings within the manager/employee area are personally driven. Many members noted that they failed to realize how poor an attitude they had adopted, and that their drive to perform and achieve had diminished. "You no longer want to go to work, and when those feeling come, you are no longer able to give 100 percent, and your coworkers realize it," wrote Marge Bitetti.

The negative vibe you give off can certainly put you at the top of a layoff list that a manager may be compiling, said Cary Pembleton, president of PC Networks, Inc., in Campbellsville, KY. "Oftentimes, we become complacent in our specific job duties and neglect to have a cheerful and grateful attitude. Let us remember there are thousands of people ready and willing to take our place in an instant," he wrote.

Pembleton believes he could have prevented a prior layoff from a major Internet e-commerce company if he had kept his attitude positive when his role changed from support leader to maintenance mechanic. "I should never have let this happen. Remember, always have an attitude of gratitude even if some of the tasks you are asked to do don't seem to be what you thought they should be in your job description or title," he advised.

Complacency—feeling safe—also proved career-ending for Simply Info, a TechRepublic member who related that he stayed at a company even though he noticed the corporate symptoms listed above. Why? Because "it was too much effort to start looking" and he had a short commute to work. "Looking back now, these are really dumb reasons to stay with a dying white elephant," wrote Simply Info. He kept working and didn't even start looking for another job, even though he realized the company was headed for trouble. "Management would give attention to some XYZ project with glowing expectations that this would be the silver bullet to expand the business, but short-term planning never lived long enough to reap results," he related.

Another member, who requested anonymity, said it wasn't complacency that made him a layoff target, but the erroneous belief that his job specialty provided strong protection. He was working as an IT management specialist for one of the largest companies worldwide and felt "safe and comfortable" since there were just three other specialists in the company's division. He acknowledges that the signs of trouble were clear (cost-cutting exercises, head-count reductions on all levels), but he failed to take heed. One reason was that during these layoff events, he was asked to attend an expensive training session with his manager. The training was pitched by management as a thank-you for all of his hard work.

"But on our return, things changed and I didn't realize until it was too late," he explained. The manager began working alongside him, tapping him for insight and knowledge continually. Then one of the VPs decided he wasn't needed, since the manager was able to do his job. Despite efforts to sandbag his impending layoff—communication attempts with high-level bosses and showing his work results—the final chapter began when his manager started taking specific duties away. "I had major customers now ringing me to say they had been instructed to contact someone else for data," he said. "As I went to find out what was happening, I was asked to speak with HR." He, along with many TechRepublic members who provided feedback, noted that there is one golden rule everyone needs to follow whether trying to avert a layoff or quickly find a job after a layoff: It pays to be nice and professional.

The moral learned, according to members, is that it's a small, small world, so it pays to get along with everyone, regardless of how difficult it may be. No one can really know who his or her friends or enemies are in the work environment or who may prove useful on the new job hunt.

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